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Controversial Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone gets green light

The long-awaited final Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ) environmental impact assessment (EIA) report was released on 1 September, coinciding with a carefully orchestrated investor conference-webinar roadshow. The fanfare was marketed to send all the “right” signals to potential investors and the “right” audience of more than 1 000 online attendees.

The fanfare had been carefully calibrated: there was one specific group the Limpopo Economic Development Agency did not directly invite: a loose coalition of developmental activists, affected communities, environmental NGOs and lawyers who make up the MMSEZ interested and affected parties (I&APs).

The interested and affected parties have made substantial inputs to the MMSEZ process through the public participation process. Let’s be frank, their comments have been blunt, critical and annoying to both the Limpopo Economic Development Agency and the Limpopo Economic Development and Environmental Agency (Ledet). So the two agencies fell back on that old invite trick that goes back to the schoolyard, just the popular kids with money get to come to your party, not that other critical edgy lot that may ruin your own rather fragile reputation by saying something that might mess with your image.

The coalition of  interested and affected parties, including Mining Communities Unite in Action (Macua), Earthlife Africa, the Living Limpopo Coalition Campaign, Save Our Limpopo Valley, the Centre for Economic Rights and the African Centre for Citizenship and Democracy and many community activists were not informed, not invited and not sent the final EIA report. 

Curiouser and curiouser, especially when one reads in the final EIA released by the new environmental consultancy agency on 1 September (under the heading “The Way Forward”) that to date: “The PPP [public participation process] has given I&APs an opportunity to assist with the identification of issues and potential impacts. The Final EIAR [EIA report] has incorporated all comments received from I&APs and has been submitted to Ledet for a decision on the proposed development. This executive summary of the Final EIAR has been distributed to all registered I&APs.”

Well, that’s a big whopper right there, dear replacement environmental assessment practitioner Ismael Kgabo Semenya of the newly appointed EnviroXcellence consultancy. The hot (and relevant) gossip on the replacement consultancy is that EnviroXcellence was called on in April because the environmental assessment practitioner, Ronaldo Retief, resigned after being named and shamed at a public participation meeting in Pretoria in late March. Retief was called out on the Limpopo Economic Development Agency’s appallingly managed public participation process —a meeting from which the agency’s Richard Zitha rapidly removed himself while Retief was in the hot seat.

Retief’s public humiliation aside, on behalf of the coalition of  interested and affected parties, we would like to point out that at the time of writing (Tuesday 7 September) not one of the coalition groups has received the new environmental impact assessment report, or heard from EnviroXcellence about where to find it. Sometimes our government and their slipstream of outsourced yes-men find inefficiency so convenient.

But never mind us investor party-pooper rejects, let’s move on to the real razzmatazz! The real-life event pulled out all the business big guns: the Industrial Development Corporation, the African Development Bank, the New Development Bank, tand Investment South Africa … plus all the bigwigs from the department of trade, industry and competition and satellite state-owned companies. 

To add a flavour of long-standing (post-colonial) exploitation, the event was sponsored by … (drum-roll) Anglo American. Well, at least it’s a capitalist face we know, because the Chinese investors were conspicuously in the minority despite the fact that Yat Hoi Ning, the chief executive of the infamously entrepreneurial Shenzhen Hoi Mor (now renamed as a South African company called the South African Energy Metallurgical Base), is the appointed operator for the MMSEZ. Of course, it would have been lovely to see Ning, but he evidently had much better things to do.

Just to sanitise the somewhat politically off-scent of Ning’s reputation, the attendees were told that Limpopo has a new “sister” province in China: Henan. Zang Chengping, the vice-president of the Henan International Cooperation group, declared the Henan-Limpopo sisterhood, after which a breakaway group was constituted of a few Chinese and South African officials. This was presumably to mull over this sudden Chinese-Limpopo shared DNA discovery and what it means for the MMSEZ. 

The R247-billion in pledged funds mentioned at the conference come on top of the R400-billion  plus pledged by Shenzhen Hoi Mor, now operating as the South African Energy Metallurgical Base. We are still in the dark about the Chinese investors though. It’s rather important given our recent history of state capture. If the MMSEZ is so collaborative, so ready to grow jobs locally (again 53 800 jobs were mentioned) and so rightfully sustainable as Premier Chupu Mathabatha insists, then ought not the public have the right to be privy to the foreign funders identities? 

On a similar note, is it also not too bold to ask if we could please have the details of the investments, loans and the conditionalities that are undoubtedly attached? By simply “disappearing” the Chinese backing to the MMSEZ, the investor shebang comes across, well, odd at best, damn suspicious at worst. 

This comes at the end of the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture. We don’t want to witness the same mistakes again, especially with the Chinese government. Not saying the Chinese government could not do great things in terms of assisting with development, not at all. But there’s that little problem of opacity and lack of oversight. Especially when dealing with the Chinese government and investors. There’s research done, including our own, on how to get this right. Step number one is transparency and public disclosure. You have been warned.

But back to the real ra-ra: the new and improved “fully compliant, final  environmental impact assessment”. 

Okay, the Limpopo Economic Development Agency and the MMSEZ gang have grudgingly paired the carbon-catastrophe coal plant down to 1 320 megawatts. They’ve trimmed the size of the zone down too, to a mere 3 000 or so hectares from the previous 8 000 plus hectares which means, oh happy day, there will be slightly less pollution (because we are finally going to get ultra-super critical clean coal, just like we didn’t at Medupi?). 

There’s another “big win” for us pesky enviro types: now proudly bearing the picture of a baobab tree on its website, the MMSEZ board (now rebranded the MM State-Owned Corporation, or MMSOC) tells us that far fewer trees than the original 100 000 will need to be transplanted. We are so relieved …

As for the rest of the EIA’s 800-plus hardly revised pages, the specialist reports are in, mitigation measures can be discussed before the next EIAs, and so Premier Stan Mathabatha tells us, we are full steam ahead (if you will excuse the pun). The dire water scarcity of the province is a problem, but the new EIA faithfully promises we are good to go for now. We will make a plan. The MMSEZ is our flagship regional project and brings South Africa back into the developmental big time.

Oh, and did we mention that the subject of coal was not raised once in the investor conference because they were too busy jabbering about nuclear energy, where even the new EIA says (what the old one said), namely: “Advanced nuclear power generation was not regarded as feasible due to the timeline for the development and regulatory and licencing of an advanced nuclear power plant, and nuclear power generation and its associated health and safety concerns.” 

So Dr Trevor Dudley, head of the Mozweli Nuclear Energy Group (and a genius on the subject we are told) it’s still a genuine puzzle as to why you were invited to the conference even though you were so kind as to offer billions of cash to get the MMSEZ all nuked up …

Speaking of “in the dark” — sorry to be the harbingers of even more bad news (enough to give the average South African those special pitch-dark night-sweats — the final EIA confirms that our very own Eskom will be supplying electricity to the MMSEZ in its start-up phase. We need say no more. Except that, regrettably, the MMSEZ is going ahead.

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Meshack Mbangula
Meshack Mbangula is a renowned community activist and a leader in community capacitation and mobilisation for Mining Affected Communities Unite in Action (MACUA)
Hazel Shirinda
Hazel Shirinda is an environmental scientist and activist based at the University of Venda. She does participatory development outreach with ACCEDE and SOLVE.
Lisa Thompson
Lisa Thompson is a political economist and public-sector reform analyst at the University of the Western Cape

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